The Mystery Behind Beijing’s Disappearing Markets
Over the course of the year, SYA China students have seen Beijing become incredibly more modern. Many old structures have been demolished in place of large businesses and sleek apartment complexes. This is a result of Beijing mayor Cai Qi’s proposed solution to Beijing’s burgeoning population: “Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Development Plan,” a part of which provides the grounds for moving and closing local markets. Our ILP group decided to examine three major markets at risk of being demolished: Panjiayuan, Shilihe Tianjiao, and Dahongmen to uncover their true stories, perhaps before it’s too late.
我们发现潘家园不搬的原因以后，我们决定要知道为什么别的市场不可以待在北京。我们去了十里河市场因为春节的时候，一个新闻文章说十里河会关门。在那儿，我们采访了一些卖东西的人问了他们“十里河会不会被拆了”。多半儿的人说：“太不清楚” 或者 “不好说”。我们发现政府要拆一个市场的时候，什么时候拆，在哪儿拆，怎么拆，新市场在哪儿，都不清楚。甚至，政府从来不会说他们拆这个市场的原因。
A red tarp hangs over an open concrete courtyard. The space below is split up into sections of walkway and blankets on which goods are proudly displayed. The vendors arrange themselves into slots, yelling out to visitors who pass by. Almost every available inch of space is occupied by antiques that could only be described as classically Chinese: terra cotta pottery, Qing dynasty glassware, jade beads hanging on a string. The air is hot, the courtyard is packed, and you have never heard this much yelling in your life. You’re invited to participate in the Chinese bargain culture; you end up losing yourself in the heat of the game. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, this is the heart of Beijing. This is Panjiayuan market.
In just nine short months in Beijing, we, as SYA China students, have witnessed our fair share of Beijing destruction: hutongs collapsing, coffee shops closing down, and our favorite roadside stores disappearing. But when we heard from our teacher, Li Xuedong, that Panjiayuan, as well as other markets, would soon join Beijing’s deceased, we wanted to know why.
When we visited Panjiayuan, Daniel was pulled into the bargaining game immediately, kneeling over an array of necklaces and fighting with a small lady over a tan bead necklace that seems to be unique to China only. “Three hundred kuai?” he exclaimed. “One hundred.” The atmosphere was infectious: by the time we left Panjiayuan, Lily had an authentic Cultural Revolution propaganda poster, and Daniel’s wrist sported a two-hundred year old pocketwatch. I myself had a chance to bargain for a string of Ming Dynasty coins.
Panjiayuan has come to embody China itself: today, with over 3,000 shops covering 48,500 square meters, Panjiayuan has grown from a tiny roadside market in 1992 to become Beijing’s biggest and foremost antiques center. On TripAdvisor.com, scores of reviews describe Panjiayuan as a lively and exciting experience, hailing it an essential stop on any tourist’s trip to Beijing. Panjiayuan’s sheer size and its popularity with foreigners set it aside from Shilihe’s soon-to-be-foreclosed Tianjiao market or the recently destroyed Dahongmen market.
A local Chinese news site indicated Panjiayuan was targeted for forced relocation last year. The plans were met with sizable resistance spanning from expressing discontent on social media to protests at Panjiayuan by the citizens of Beijing, vendors and frequenters of Panjiayuan. The movement grew so large that arrests were made. As a result, Panjiayuan is safe for now, but talk of last years’ events remain sensitive.
It was only when I visited the antique market myself that I really understood why any government plans to relocate Panjiayuan would be met with such resistance. Not only is Panjiayuan an attraction for tourists and Beijingers alike, but it is also very significant in the world of Chinese history and art. However, Panjiayuan remains a fortunate exception in the sweeping movement to close markets all over Beijing. Like Li Laoshi once told us, “Panjiayuan just cannot be closed. Other markets? Maybe. But Panjiayuan is simply too big and too important. It’s a part of all of us, of all Beijingers.”
Shilihe Tianjiao Market
Past street malls, under highways, and over a small decorative bridge sits Shilihe Tianjiao Market, in Shilihe, Beijing. Shilihe is one of Beijing’s oldest markets and is known for its birds, flowers, fish, and insects. The entrance to the market is distinct, with a traditional Chinese red archway like those you see in front of temples.
As Lauren, Daniel and I walked under the gate and into the market, fish odor wafted out of the rooms lining the walkway in clouds of hot, humid air. We trekked on past the rows of fishtanks and towards a section of the market that specializes in selling plants. There, we were greeted by a sixty-year-old man selling succulents and wearing a red polo shirt with “Shilihe Tianjiao Market” written in yellow above the breast pocket. After introducing ourselves and our project to the plant vendor, we started asking about the current status of Shilihe Market.
An article on Jinghua.com published March 3rd, 2017, mentioned Shilihe as one of the markets being shut down by the government. The article, published over the new year holiday, reported that a notice would be posted by the end of March announcing Shilihe’s closing. Seeing as we visited in mid-May, we asked the vendor what he believed to be the current status of Shilihe. He answered: “It won’t close soon.” He then pointed towards one of the walls of the shops. “We just put fresh paint on the walls. That’s not a sign we’re closing.”
As we walked on through the market, the aisles got narrower and crowded with cages and boxes. It was in these crowded aisles under tarps tied to poles sticking out of the ground that we ran into an older man pushing a stroller with only a Tupperware in the seat. A closer look, revealed a turtle inside the Tupperware. The man smiled and said he “bought the turtle for his daughter.” He then pointed towards a girl no older than four sticking her fingers through the animal cages.
“I bring her nearly every weekend.”
Shilihe Market wasn’t nearly as crowded as Panjiayuan and our foreignness stood out among the local customers. We spoke to another vendor who confirmed that the majority of Shilihe’s customers are returning locals just like the turtle man and his daughter.
As we continued our interviews, we heard from other vendors about their interpretation of Shilihe’s current status. One vendor, originally from Harbin, confirmed our suspicions by saying “It’s very possible that Shilihe will shut down by the end of this year.”
In each interview, we asked where the vendor was originally from and found out that they are from all over China. This fact, combined with the government’s decision to hold off alerting vendors of the shut down until the last minute mean that once these markets close, the vendors are displaced. When we asked each vendor if they’d made any plans for where they may go if the market shut down, the majority said they have “no idea” and one student from Fujian said he “may have to back home”. The sense of confusion was evident. This may or may not be the intention of the government when they postpone their announcement: to push migrants from other provinces out of the city.
While Panjiayuan was saved from its forced relocation, markets like Shilihe which don’t have the same tourist appeal, cultural significance, and native Beijing vendors, aren’t so lucky. This is because the government views these markets as magnets that worsen the population issue by attracting vendors from across China. In the course of a week, these kinds of markets can be shut down. Our next stop was the remains of Dahongmen Market, which closed down two weeks before, to see what the aftermath of these shutdowns looked like for ourselves.
The entrance to Dahongmen Market was blocked off by a blue metal fence that allowed for only the tops of the remaining shops and their colorful but fading signs to be seen from the outside. We asked a man packing up a truck outside the entrance where we could enter the market. He directed us towards a small opening between the wall of a shop and the end of the fence. After squeezing ourselves through this opening, a scene of disaster appeared before us. The market looked like a ghost town. The market’s aisles were filled with trash and the shop’s glass-windows were covered in grime but still clear enough to look through and see the signs of destruction inside. There were only a few stops still open in one aisle. These shops only sold bed sheets and other assorted blankets and, although they were open, not one store had a customer.
We went into the nearest store and interviewed the vendor, a young woman from Hebei province. When asked about the market’s current condition and if she had plans if her store closed, she said she hadn’t thought that far ahead. Then we moved onto the next store. When we walked in, we immediately caught the eye of the vendor. We explained how we were students and wanted to ask some questions. Unfortunately, his accent was hard to comprehend because he was from Zhejiang province, but we understood enough to know his basic meaning. He gave us nearly the same responses as our previous interviewee: the status of the market was unclear, and he didn’t know whether his section of the market place was going to close down soon or not.
Our next to last interviewee was a local shop owner that appeared to be moving to another location. The floor of his shop was flooded with boxes full of moving materials. When we asked him who had forced the shops to close, he said that it was the government’s doing. Another shop owner claimed that the shop was built on a medical company’s property, and the company refused to sign a new contract with the market. These two responses contradicted each other. It seemed like no one knew the whole story because of the limited information provided to them.
Regardless of what the real story is, the closing of this market entails a greater trend in Beijing. Old markets like Dahongmen are being switched out for apartment buildings and big businesses. There are quite a few possible explanations for this trend. For one, closing of this market has displaced a lot of Beijing outsiders. It has made it harder for people from other provinces to get a job here, effectively controlling the population. Another explanation could be real estate. Our interviewee from Dahongmen had said that the company wouldn’t want to waste such expensive land on a small local market and instead sell it for larger projects, such as apartment buildings. According to the National Bureau of China, the average price of new commodity houses was up by 23.5% in August 2016, so one can see why Dahongmen’s land would be considered for more practical purposes.
Although the process of closing markets is convoluted at best, we believe that tourist appeal, cultural significance, and the nationality of vendors are main factors that determine which markets are the targets of the Beijing government’s wrath. And as a result, sites that once held a great deal of cultural importance such as Shilihe and Dahongmen are slowly going away. But then again, Panjiayuan is staying — and maybe the distinct culture and identity of Beijing won’t be in danger anytime soon.